The Nepali national meal is daal-bhaat-tarkaari. It is spiced lentils poured over boiled rice, and served with tarkari: vegetables cooked with spices. This is served in most Nepalese homes and teahouses, two meals a day at about 10:00 and 19:00 or 20:00 If rice is scarce the grain part may be cornmeal mush called aata, barley, or sukkha roti (whole wheat ‘tortillas’). The meal may be accompanied by dahi (yogurt) and a small helping of ultra-spicy fresh chutney or achaar (pickle). Traditionally this meal is eaten with the right hand. Curried meat, goat or chicken, is an occasional luxury, and freshwater fish is often available nearlakes and rivers. Because Hindus hold cattle to be sacred, beef is forbidden but still can be obtained for a high price in some expensive restaurants although the price is high mainly because it is imported from India. Buffalo and yak are eaten by some but considered too cow-like by others. Pork is eaten by some tribes, but not by upper-caste Hindus. Similar to India there are some communities and tribes who are vegetarians.
Outside the main morning and evening meals, a variety of snacks may be available. Tea, made with milk and sugar is certainly a pick-me-up. Corn may be heated and partially popped, although it really isn’t popcorn. This is called “kha-jaa”, meaning “eat and run” Rice may be heated and crushed into “chiura” resembling uncooked oatmeal that can be eaten with yogurt, hot milk and sugar, or other flavourings. Fritters called ‘pakora’ and turnovers called “samosa” can sometimes be found, as can sweets made from sugar, milk, fried batter, sugar cane juice, etc. Be sure such delicacies are either freshly cooked or have been protected from flies. Otherwise flies land in the human waste that is everywhere in the streets, then on your food, and so you become a walking medical textbook of gastrological conditions.
Because of the multi-ethnic nature of Nepali society, differing degrees of adherence to Hindu dietary norms, and the extreme range of climates and micro-climates throughout the country, different ethnic communities often have their own specialties.
Newars, an ethnic group originally living in the Kathmandu Valley, are connoisseurs of great foods who lament that feasting is their downfall, whereas sexual indulgence is said to be the downfall of Pahari Chhetri. In the fertile Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys this cuisine often includes a greater variety of foodstuffs, particularly vegetables, than what are available in most of the hills. As such, Newari cuisine is quite distinct and diverse relatively compared to the other indigenous regional cuisines of Nepal, so watch out for Newari restaurants. Some of them even come with cultural shows: a good way to enjoy good food while having a crash-course in Nepalese culture.
The cuisine of the Terai lowlands is almost the same as in adjacent parts of India. Locally-grown tropical fruits are sold alongside subtropical and temperate temperate crops from the hills. In addition to bananas (‘kera’) and papayas (‘mewa’) familiar to travellers, jackfruit (‘katar’) is a local delicacy.
Some dishes, particularly in the Himalayan region, are Tibetan in origin and not at all spicy. Some dishes to look for include momos, a meat or vegetable filled dumpling, which is similar to Chinese pot-stickers. Momos has become very popular in past few decades. Momos can be found almost everywhere in Kathmandu and other towns in Nepal, whether it be a big hotel or a small restaurant. Other dishes like Tibetan Bread and Honey a puffy fried bread with heavy raw honey that’s great for breakfast. Up in the Himalayan mountains, potatoes are the staple of the Sherpa people. Try the local dish of potato pancakes (rikikul). They are delicious eaten straight off the griddle and covered with dzo (female yak) butter or cheese.
Pizza, Mexican, Thai and Chinese food and Middle-Eastern food can all be found in the tourist districts of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan. If you are on a budget, eating local dishes will save money.
Many small restaurants are not prepared to cook several different dishes; try to stick with one or two dishes or you will find yourself waiting as the cook tries to make one after another on a one-burner stove in those small restaurants.
As far as possible, eat only Nepali village products. If you take only village product foods, it will help them economically.
- Raksi is a clear liquid, similar to tequila in alcohol content. It is usually brewed “in house”, resulting in a variation in its taste and strength. This is by far the least expensive drink in the country. It is often served on special occasions in small, ceramic cups (Salinchha in Newar language) that hold less than a shot. It works well as a mixer in fruit juice or seltzer. It may appear on menus as “Nepali wine”.
- Jaand (Nepali) or chyaang (Tibetan) is a cloudy, moderately alcoholic drink sometimes called “Nepali beer”. Mostly it is made from rice, specially in Newari culture. While weaker than raksi, it will still have quite an effect. This is often offered to guests in Nepali homes, and is diluted with water. For your safety, ask guests if the water has been sanitized before drinking this beverage.
- Beer production in Nepal is a growing industry. Some local beers are now also exported, and the quality of beer has reached to international standards International brands are popular in the urban areas. Everest and Gorkha are two popular local brands.
- Cocktails can pretty much only be found in Kathmandu and Pokhara’s tourist areas. There you can get watered-down “two for one drinks” at a variety of pubs, restaurants and sports bars.
Although not as internationally famous as Indian brands, Nepal does in fact have a large organic tea industry. Most plantations are in the east of the country and the type of tea grown is very similar to that produced in neighbouring Darjeeling. Well known varieties are Dhankuta, Illam, Jhapa, Terathhum and Panchthar (all named after their growing regions). Over 70% of Nepal’s tea is exported and the tea you see for sale in Thamel, while they serve as token mementos, are merely the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel.
- Milk tea is boiled milk with added tea, with or without sugar.
- Chai is tea with added milk and also sometimes containing ginger and spices such as cardamom.
- Suja is salty tea made with milk and butter – only available in areas inhabited by Tibetans, Sherpas and a few other Himalayan people.
- Herbal teas are mostly made from wild flowers from the Solu Khumbu region. In Kathmandu, these teas are generally only served in high class establishments or those run by Sherpas from the Solu Khumbu.